Theater Is Alive and Well On the National's Stage

The director of the Royal National Theatre points to evidence that playgoing in Britain is on the rise, and live entertainment will continue, because people need a sense of connection

ONE of the most influential people of the English-speaking stage, Richard Eyre is artistic chief of Britain's Royal National Theatre (RNT) and has the final say in virtually everything that it does. With the RNT as the country's flagship drama troupe, his impact on the international theater scene is enormous. Mr. Eyre has been in the "hot seat" for the last two years - a seat previously filled by the formidable Sir Peter Hall and, before that, its founder and first chief, Lord Laurence Olivier. Hard acts to follow. Yet with his impressive intellectual energy, an easy manner, and strong character, he has managed to earn widespread admiration from colleagues.

Eyre says he wants to bring a distinctive style of excellence to the RNT. Well, if sweeping the various drama awards is anything to go by, he has already succeeded. Sitting in his office with a panoramic view of the River Thames, Eyre discussed the direction of British theater in the 1990s. Here are some excerpts:

With the theater capital of the world having shifted to London - in large part due to the inflated costs and high risk of mounting new shows in New York - is it still a cachet for a British production to be a success on Broadway?

No, I wouldn't say it is a cachet, to be honest. I would say it's nice icing on the cake, financially, I suppose.

Howard Davidson [now an RNT director], for example, took "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" to Broadway and did quite well, but I don't think it was any joy for him in doing it. There isn't really the same feeling here that there used to be, where you hadn't truly succeeded unless your show went to Broadway....

A pejorative phrase used by critics on both sides of the Atlantic is "star vehicle:" a show that appears to be using a big name in the leading role as a drawing card. Do you agree with the critics who, generally speaking, see this as a bad trend?

No, I don't think it's a bad thing. People want an event. People go to see Dustin Hoffman on stage because he is a rather good actor - but also because they want to see him live. And I think that's absolutely fine.

Do you think British theater flourishes because it has a state-subsidized sector, alongside the commercial?

Yes, I do. Apart from the usual preamble that a national theater is here to do the best of world drama, ancient and modern, it is to present plays either because their content would not be done commercially, or because the way you do them could not be done commercially. Take, for example, "The Voysey Inheritance," which I directed here awhile back [a little-performed, low-key moral tale by English playwright Harley Granville-Barker, written in 1905, that proved a big success at the RNT]. If you opened t hat play cold in the West End, it's very hard to see how you could find stars for it, because it's not that sort of play. You would have a very, very hard job doing it commercially.

"The Voysey Inheritance" brings up an interesting question. Although nearly a century old, the play was uncannily applicable to today. Does this mean that for a play to succeed, apart from being well written, it has to be "relevant"?

All classics have to be the mirror of their age. And when you present a classic, you're presenting it because, in some sense, it means something now. If you are just presenting it because it's time to do another Shaw play, for example, then I think the process is meaningless.

But I slightly avoid the term "relevant;" I think that's an awful burden for a play to carry. Still, I do think the play has to mean something to me to do it. There's a subtle difference here: "Relevant" has a kind of worthy and earnest tone. Whereas, all I mean is that you've got to vibrate in harmony with whatever the piece of work you are doing or seeing. And that goes for comedy and pure entertainment, as much as classics.

Watching television in many countries militates against attracting people to the theater. Yet, in Britain the number of theatergoers is on the rise. How do you explain this trend?

I think there is a decline in interest in television in this country that wasn't there a few years ago. There is a real appetite for some kind of live sensation. And this growing disenchantment with television might have something to do with a kind of despiritualization: a feeling that there is a lack in people's lives, and somehow the sensation of being part of a public event - be it theater, opera, a rock concert, or whatever - is somehow a way of making contact.

I've also noticed a trend in theater here where shows encourage audience involvement. To what do you attribute this?

This supports just what I'm saying. People need to make contact.... In a kind of cosmic sense, I feel quite optimistic about the activity of theater - and of live entertainment, generally - actually continuing to grow, rather than diminishing in the coming years.

You have already indicated that you believe the realistic mode of storytelling is no longer right for theater, because that is now the province of TV. Do you see this as a sad loss or an exciting challenge to come up with new theatrical styles?

Having said that, I saw on the Continent a year or so ago a German production of "The Cherry Orchard," which was the most realistic that I've ever seen in any theater. Everything was taken to its absolutely logical extreme, what [German stage director] Peter Stein calls a "super realism": You can virtually see the flies and cobwebs moving. And that method of extending theater realism way into a whole other area somehow does break the conventions of the kind of theater realism where you accept that peopl e are walking around rooms with three walls and the audience is on the fourth side; I certainly think the dominant mode in the theater now is to get more and more free of that kind of literal realism.

There has been a political trend in this country to look more to the American model of arts funding, that is, to reduce state subsidy and increase reliance on commercial sponsorship. I spoke with Sir Peter Hall about this, and he made no bones about his views: This trend, he said, is killing British theater as we know it. Do you agree?

I think trying to raise what is, in global terms, a comparatively small amount of money - for the RNT, slightly under 50 percent of our money comes from the box office, 42 to 43 percent from the state, and seven to eight percent from commercial sponsorship - I can't in all honesty say that at the moment it's damaging the artistic content of the repertoire. Although there is a disproportionate amount of my and the [RNT] staff's time spent in raising that [sponsorship] money. But as a trend, if you say th at it is to continue and the graph is to spin geometrically upward, then I think it's very, very serious and deleterious.

How do you cope so well in the face of your enormous responsibilities?

The best answer to that is, as I think Walter Benjamin, the German literary critic, once put it: "One should feel pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will." I couldn't say it any better than that.

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